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“Hey Cher, fancy doing me a favour?”
Cheryl glanced away from her screen and saw Maggie from Accounts standing over her shoulder with her hands on her hips and double D’s thrust forward. The woman liked attention. “Oh, um, sure, Mag, what’s up?”
“D’you hear about the work thing this weekend? You heard, right, the weekend thing?”
“You mean the company getaway I wasn’t invited to? Nope, not sure what you’re referring to.”
Maggie grimaced, then glanced left and right as if checking the coast was clear. She spoke in a low voice, barely audible over the background din of clacking keyboards and the monotonous chorus of: Alscon Tiles, how can I help you? “I agree it was harsh,” she said, “but there were only six places to fill. John had to pick names at random.”
Bullshit, thought Cheryl. John had picked his best buddies to go, like Monty, the company’s top salesman. Funny, how he ended up being one of those ‘random’ names. Did Mag think she was an idiot?
She thinks everyone’s an idiot. That’s her problem.
Cheryl’s chewed fingernails hovered over the keyboard, eager to get back to work. “So, what’s this favour, Mag? I’m kinda busy.”
Maggie licked her lips. Her flushed cheeks dimpled. “Would you take my place at the getaway? Pretty please? Say yes!”
Cheryl raised an eyebrow and swivelled in her chair to face Maggie properly. A waft of sickly perfume hit her in the face but she ignored it. “Huh? Why aren’t you going?”
“Andrew got us tickets to see Wicked for our fifteenth anniversary. Can you believe I’ve been married that long? Makes me feel totally old. Anyway, he meant it as a surprise but it clashes with this company thing. It’s a complete headache, to be honest. I never even wanted to go, but John insisted.”
I bet he did! Cheryl didn’t voice the thought and feigned irritation instead. “Oh great! You don’t want to go on some cheesy work weekend but you expect me to?”
Maggie pouted and placed her manicured fingernails together in mock prayer. “I’m begging you, Cher. If I cancel at the last minute, John’ll have a fit, but if I tell him I arranged for you to take my place he won’t be able to say anything. Please, please, please! You’ll be doing me such a biggie. I’ll do whatever you want in return.”
“Oo-er!” came a voice from the next cubicle. Leo, the purchasing manager, peered over the partition wall with a smirk on his face. He had a habit of doing that lately, and Cher spent her days never knowing when he would pop up like a meerkat. Today he was wearing a bright green tie decorated with little lions and tigers. It was awful. “Sounds like things are about to get interesting,” he said. “Nice!”
“Stay out of it you!” said Maggie, pointing a finger at his crooked nose. Everything about Leo was mildly crooked. He had bony cheeks either side of a ridged nose, and a pair of projecting eyebrows — yet he wasn’t bad looking. Somehow his individually harsh features worked in harmony. He was about the same age as Cheryl too.
Just a pity about his slimy personality.
To prove her thought, Leo leered at her, and she didn’t know if it was in jest or if he was actually trying to imagine her tits underneath her blouse. “Just say you’ll come, Cher. It’ll be a laugh.”
Maggie bounced excitedly like a grinning moron. She obviously thought two against one was a sure-fire win — and it was true because Cheryl could feel the peer pressure closing in on her and trapping her inside her tiny cubicle. She sighed. “Look, what is this thing? I stopped paying attention when I wasn’t invited.”
Leo climbed up on his desk so he could hang all the way over the partition wall. He spoke in a hushed, conspiratorial tone. “It’s an escape room.”
Cheryl frowned. “Like what rich people have in their mansions?”
Leo snorted. “No, Cher, that’s a panic room. You’re so funny.”
“Yeah, okay, whatever. So what is it then? Because it sounds stupid.”
Leo suddenly grew serious, which made his thick eyebrows project even further. “It’s a game. All of us get locked up in a room, right, and we have to solve a bunch of puzzles, right, and if we escape in less than ninety minutes, we win a grand in cash — each! John is well excited, which makes a change. It was all he could talk about down the Goose last night.”
Cheryl groaned. “And that there is the reason I don’t want to go. You’re all buddies, aren’t you? But John and I barely talk. I think he forgot he even hired me. I’m just the mousey girl who sits in the corner of the office all day.”
Leo smirked. “What is it you do exactly, Cher? I honestly forgot.”
“Yeah, I’m not too sure either,” said Maggie with an embarrassed look on her face.
“Are you two serious? I’ve worked here for three months!” When they continued staring at her blankly, she grunted. “Fine! I run the company’s social media and web content, okay? All our advertising too. Does anybody appreciate me around here?”
“I appreciate you,” said Maggie, giving her best attempt at being earnest. Her pink lips and unbuttoned blouse made it somewhat farcical. “And I’ll appreciate you even more if you go on this weekend for me. You’ll have fun, I promise. Happy’s going, so you know everybody will behave themselves.”
Cheryl glanced across the room, past the many cubicles arranged in rows. Happy — or Howard Moss, if you used his real name — was the office manager. He was currently standing near the fire exit, tacking another of his ‘motivational’ posters to the wall. He was the dad of the office, and the thought of him being on the getaway did make her feel better, but it still didn’t make spending an entire weekend with her colleagues any more appealing.
But there was that matter of a thousand pounds.
A deposit on a flat. A nice flat.
Or a car. I could actually go places besides work.
She had known nothing about any prize money until Leo had mentioned it, but it was reason enough to endure one awkward weekend. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll take your place, Mag, but check with John first, okay? Last thing I want is to turn up unexpectedly.”
Maggie clapped her hands together and bounced on the spot. Her breasts wobbled beneath her blouse and attracted Leo’s gaze. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! You won’t regret this, Cher. I owe you one.”
“Yeah, you do!” Cheryl turned back to her screen, hoping it would prompt them to leave her alone. Maggie took the hint and left with a friendly wave, but Leo carried on hanging over the partition wall like a bored child. When she made eye-contact with him, he grinned. “Always knew I’d get you away for a weekend eventually.” He winked at her. “If you play your cards right, we might be trapped together all night.”
“Trust me,” she said, curling her upper lip, “I’ll be doing everything I can to escape as quickly as possible. And not just because of the thousand-pound prize.”
“Ouch,” said Leo. “No need to be like that, Cher-bear. You’ll love me once you get to know me, you’ll see.”
“Or maybe I’ll hate you worse than I do now. And don’t call me Cher-bear, I hate it!” It came out more harshly than she’d intended, and Leo appeared wounded by the jab. He fiddled with his tie and looked away. “Sorry,” she added. “I never was any good at the old office banter.”
“The problem is,” he said, “you’re too good at it. Excuse me while I remove my battered ego from your presence, princess.”
He slid back down into his own cubicle, leaving Cheryl to wonder if she had actually hurt his feelings. The last thing she needed was going into a locked room with someone pissed off with her.
Did I just make an enemy?
She left-clicked the photograph on her monitor and began cropping it ready for the new company catalogue. It was a team shot, featuring the entire staff of Alscon in a group huddle. Cheryl was in the picture, but right at the back, barely visible amongst her smiling, confident co-workers.
Why do I never seem to fit in anywhere? she asked herself. Why do I feel like a tadpole in a pond full of fish?
She didn’t have an answer.
* * *
“Do I need to make you sandwiches, sweetheart? I could put some of last night’s spaghetti in Tupperware for you.”
Cheryl was busy bunching her almond-brown hair into a loose ponytail ready for the weekend. She had also dressed practically in a thick tartan shirt and light-denim jacket. Warm but not sweaty. “No, mum!” she said for the umpteenth time. “I don’t need you to make me sandwiches. Jeez, I’m twenty-three. Anyway, this thing is fully catered.”
“But you don’t want to be eating food you haven’t seen prepared. I’ll pack you some sarnies just to be safe.”
Cheryl stood from the kitchen’s small oak table and gave her increasingly frail old ma a hug in front of the Aga. The heat coming off it was comforting, and conjured memories of sitting on the tiles as a child and playing with her dolls. If one thing made her think of home, it was heat from an Aga. “Stop fretting, mum. It’s just a weekend — a work thing — I’ll be fine.”
“What kind of work locks their employees in a room?”
Cheryl chuckled. An escape room must have sounded ludicrous to her sixty-seven-year-old mother — it sounded bizarre enough to herself — but she’d given her word now, and it wasn’t worth the hassle of cancelling at the last minute. “It’s just a game, mum. Like that show you and dad used to watch on the games channel. The, um, Crystal Maze, right? We’ll work together to get out of a room by solving puzzles. It’s a team building thingy.”
Her mother crossed her arms and appeared no less concerned. Since Cheryl’s father died two years ago, things had been difficult at home. The sudden loss had all but crippled her mother, and it was heartbreaking to witness, but Cheryl was grieving too. She’d lost her dad before her twenty-second birthday, and her mother’s helplessness was becoming a burden. He had always been such an imposing figure, a self-made businessman and a workaholic most of the time, but a loving and warm joker the rest. Without his presence, life had fallen into a depressing stasis, and as much as Cheryl was loath to admit it, the notion of a company outing had grown on her. It was the first weekend she’d had plans in over a month.
I’m supposed to be in my own place by now with a boyfriend and plans for a future. Now it feels like I don’t even have a future.
“Have you made a list of everything you need to pack?” Her mother asked, speaking between nibbles at her thumbnail.
“I’m already packed, mum. I’ve got everything I need, I promise. Stop fretting.”
“What about Vaseline?”
Her mother rooted through one of the kitchen drawers and pulled out a small steel tin, then handed it to Cheryl as if its purpose was obvious. “It’s going to be minus-one this afternoon. You know how bad your lips get when it’s cold.”
Cheryl didn’t expect to be spending much time outdoors, but her mother was clearly desperate to be useful. Taking the Vaseline was a tiny gesture, so she reached out and accepted it, sliding the tin into her jean pocket. “Thanks mum. I’ll use it if I need it.”
Her mother finally relaxed. She leaned back against the Aga’s silver handrail. “I don’t mean to nag, but you’re my baby and I just —”
A honking horn made them both flinch. Cheryl’s mother didn’t recover from the fright, and her sallow face hung like a Basset Hound. The weight of her worry dragged her pasty grey eyelids downwards. Would she ever stop being such an anxious mess?
I can’t live at home forever, mum. I won’t.
The car horn honked again.
Cheryl moved towards the door. “That’ll be Leo. He’s giving me a lift.”
Her mother hurried after her like she planned to stop her leaving. “And how long have you known this Leo?”
“Since I started at Alscon.”
“Did you leave me the address for the hotel? You said it’s more than an hour away.”
Cheryl gave her mother another quick hug. “Mum, stop worrying. Leo works in the cubicle next to mine, and he’s a nice guy. I’ve written everything you need to know and put it on the fridge, okay? I have my mobile, and I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon. Enjoy some privacy for a couple days. Read a book or something.”
“What on earth would I want to read about?”
“I don’t know, mum. Maybe try reading something interesting. Who knows, you might actually enjoy yourself.”
“Don’t be so mean.”
Cheryl leaned forward and kissed her mother’s forehead. “Sorry, mum.”
“Will you just remember to—”
The car horn beeped again, and Cheryl decided not to prolong the moment any further. “I best get going, mum. I’ll call you tonight, okay? Love you.”
“Love you too, sweetheart. Um, just… keep warm, okay?”
Cheryl hurried out the kitchen’s side door and rushed out the front gate. It had been a goodbye far harder than it should’ve been, which left her frustrated, and yet she was excited too. She was going to have a little fun for one weekend. Was that too much to ask? Besides, it was only a work thing. What was the worst that could happen?
* * *
The journey started awkwardly. Leo was chatty, as always, but the general line of conversation oscillated between bad jokes and worse innuendos. Cheryl hadn’t known him long, which meant she spent most of the time laughing awkwardly and not knowing how to take things. In the last ten minutes though, Leo had started to settle down, and his words gradually matured to match his age.
“So you still live at home with your mum, huh?” he asked her as they cruised along the dual carriageway at eighty. She wished he’d do seventy.
She had been warming her hands on the dashboard vent, but she sat back now and looked at him. “Yeah, I was planning to move out by now but my, um, dad died of a heart attack a couple years back. It was sudden, you know? He was fit as a fiddle, so it came out of nowhere. Didn’t seem right leaving Mum on her own after such a shock.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
She shrugged. “Why would you? He died suddenly. Mum still hasn’t come to terms with it, really. Not sure she ever will. They were married for over forty years.”
Leo glanced away from the road to look at her. His cheeky visage dropped, and she thought she saw genuine sympathy on his face — and why had she not noticed how dark and brown his eyes were before? They were like pools of chocolate. “Both my parents are still around,” he said, “but my mum’s brother died a few years back from cancer and it really ripped her apart. I thought she was going to get committed at one point, so I get how you needed to look after your mum. It’s good of you. Don’t know many of our age who would.”
“Come on, I’m sure most would. You can’t turn your back on your parents, can you?”
Leo raised an eyebrow at that. He refocused on the road and several minutes passed before he turned back to her again. “So, you been looking forward to this weekend, Cher?”
“No, not at first. I was annoyed at Maggie for landing it on me. I could use a grand though, so I hope we win. You ever done one of these things before, Leo?”
He shook his head. “I watched a few clips on YouTube. They look a good laugh.”
“What made John book it? Seems random.”
“Don’t ask me. He isn’t exactly an imaginative guy, so it surprised me too. Maybe an ad popped up while he was watching porn.”
Cheryl let out a snort, then covered her nose in embarrassment. “Aren’t you and John, like, best mates?”
“No way, Pedro! John’s twice my age. I think he gets a kick out of hanging out with me down the pub and convincing himself he’s still young. Look, I like the guy, don’t get me wrong, but we’re not as close as people think. Doesn’t hurt getting along with the boss though, you know what I mean? When I started at Alscon, I was a warehouse worker. Now I’m head of purchasing. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
“Tell me about it! It’s so cliquey at work. You, Maggie, and all the sales guys speak your own language. I swear I catch you laughing at me sometimes.”
“What? You’re paranoid, Cher.” He gave her a warm smile to back up his claim, drilling into her with those deep brown eyes again. “No one laughs at you.”
She frowned, wondering if it was true. Was she paranoid? It had certainly been a while since she’d trusted anyone. Losing her dad so suddenly had made the thought of relying on anyone too much to bear. “Really? It’s in my head?”
“Absolutely. You’re right though, it is cliquey at work. You can thank Maggie for that. I don’t think she ever means it, but she can be a real bitch.”
Cheryl laughed again, and this time didn’t stop herself. “She’s like the office mean girl — all smiles to your face and frowns at the back of your head. She kind of intimidates me.”
Leo looked away from the road again, and it appeared he was weighing up whether to say something. “You know she and John were a thing for a while, right? He even paid for those fun bags of hers. ‘Christmas Bonus’, he put it down as.”
“I’ve heard rumours they used to be an item, but I try not to involve myself in that type of talk.”
At least when it involves my boss.
“Yeah, me too, usually, but when it comes to people getting their rocks off, I like to know all the gory details. With diagrams if possible.”
Cheryl grimaced, but ended up chuckling. “You’re such a perv.”
Leo kept talking. “Apparently, John came on a little strong, so Maggie broke it off. That’s what she told me, anyway.”
Cheryl folded her hands in her lap and tried to resist getting drawn into gossip, but she feared that if she didn’t, the conversation would turn awkward again. “Aren’t they both married?”
Leo beeped his horn as somebody, who must have been going a hundred miles an hour, cut in front of them from the right-hand lane. The conversation fizzled as Leo was forced to concentrate on the road so Cheryl listened to the radio for a while. The DJ was running a call-in about football, which instantly made her think about her dad again. They had held twin season tickets each year, and gone to support their team at every home game. Back then, she would’ve described herself as an avid football fan, but now she realised it had been the time spent with him that she had loved. Her interest in football had died with him.
Another twenty minutes passed, and then Leo turned off the main highway and entered a narrow access road that rapidly turned from tarmac to gravel. They followed that for ten minutes until they spotted a group of ramshackle farm buildings.
Cheryl leaned forward in her seat, trying to get a better view through the windshield. “D’you think this is the place?”
Leo tapped his slender fingers on top of the steering wheel and peered out of his side window as they trundled along the gravel road. “According to the Sat Nav, it is. I was expecting something a little more… less of a farm.”
“Yeah, me too. Then again, lots of farms have petting zoos and stuff attached nowadays, don’t they?Maybe there’s not enough money in just being a farm anymore. It’s sad.”
“Blame the supermarkets for putting the squeeze on agricultural profits.”
“Seriously, is that the reason?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Did it make me sound smart?”
“Um, not anymore…”
Leo pulled the car into a muddy patch outside a steel shack full of hay, and they both spotted the bonnet of John Alscon’s silver Bentley peeking out from the other side of the bales. Each morning, when Cheryl passed the luxury motor parked outside the office, she thought it was boxy and ugly — not something she would spend money on even if she had it — but she supposed the main thing was the badge on the bonnet.
Leo brought his car to a stop and yanked the handbrake which made a loud kwunk! Then he switched off the engine and gurned at Cheryl. “Time to get this party started, Cher-bear!”
She couldn’t help but loose a smile. He was taking this so seriously, like he planned on making it the best weekend ever. “Just behave yourself,” she told him. “Or we’ll leave you behind in the escape room.”
“You’ll be begging to stay with me by tonight, I promise.”
Both chuckling, they exited the car and stepped into the mud. Cheryl wished she’d worn boots instead of the gleaming white trainers she’d chosen in anticipation of being indoors. The last thing she needed was an embarrassing slip in front of her colleagues. As her mother had warned, it was chilly, and she had to pull her denim jacket tightly around herself to keep warm. She let out an obligatory, Brrr!
John emerged from behind his Bentley, dressed in a Burberry jacket and matching flat cap. He waved to greet them, but then stopped and frowned. “Cheryl? What are you doing here?”
She cleared her throat and fidgeted with the buttons on her denim cuff. “Um, didn’t Maggie tell you? She couldn’t make it.”
John’s frown lingered a moment more before he glanced to the side. “But Maggie’s right here.”
Maggie stepped out from behind the Bentley, dressed in purple furry boots, purple furry coat, and purple furry hat. She appeared embarrassed, chuckling like an idiot. “OMG,” she said, putting her mittened hands against her cheeks. “I totally forgot, Cher! I’m such an idiot. Wow, I can’t even…”
Leo moved away from Cheryl as if a rotten smell had suddenly emanated from her. She had a feeling she was about to hear something she wouldn’t much appreciate. “What the hell, Maggie? You said you couldn’t make it. Theatre tickets?”
Maggie shook her head, making the tassels on her woollen hat swing back and forth like pendulums. “The tickets Andrew bought are for next weekend, can you believe it? I’m such a scatterbrain. I can’t believe I forgot to tell you, Cher.”
Cheryl took two steps forwards, then realised she was clenching her fists. It took an effort to open them again. “I’ve just driven an hour with Leo to get here, Maggie. I’ve packed a bag and cancelled my other plans.”
Nobody needed to know she’d had no other plans.
Maggie’s sheepish grin finally fell, but she only gave a shrug. “Sorry, Cher. Really, I am.”
Cheryl took another step forward, fists re-clenching. Was Maggie even hearing her? “Seriously? That’s all you’ve got to say? Jesus!”
John stepped in front of Maggie protectively and held a leather-gloved hand up to Cheryl in a way she didn’t much like, but as dismissive as the gesture was, he didn’t seem upset. In fact, he looked disappointed by the mix-up. “Look,” he said, walking over and putting a leather-gloved hand on her lower back. “I’m sure we can squeeze an extra person in, Cheryl. They specifically stated six, but you’re here now, aren’t you? Even if you can’t take part in the escape room, you can at least stay at the hotel and have fun with the rest of us. We’re not going to send you back home by yourself. That would be wretched of us.”
Maggie smiled and clapped her hands together. “See! It’s all worked out for the best.”
Cheryl sighed. She was still angry but couldn’t see the virtue in remaining that way. She was there to have fun. “Thanks John. This is really embarrassing.”
He removed his hand from her back and gave her a smile. “Don’t be silly, Cher. I’m glad you’re here. More the merrier.”
“I’m glad you’re here too,” said Leo, and he glared at Maggie to show whose side he was on. He even muttered the word idiot, which caused Maggie’s eyes to widen as if he’d just called her something unforgivable.
Cheryl rolled her eyes. Drama queen.
John broke the tension by changing the subject. He had lost much of the formal tone he used at work, and Cheryl was amused to find that he had a mild Bristolian accent. “So, Leo? You find this place all right?”
“Yeah, boss, no probs whatsoever.” He trudged over to John and gave him a ‘man hug’ complete with pats on the back and ample groin distance between them. “Where are the others?”
John nodded over Leo’s shoulder toward the gravel road. “Looks like them now.”
Cheryl turned to see a tall black Range Rover bouncing down the gravel road. Behind the wheel was Monty, the company’s top salesman. In the back, sitting alone, was Happy, while Alfie, another lad from sales, sat in the front passenger seat. This was Alscon’s inner circle and, somehow, she had found herself right in the middle. The weekend might really help her job prospects.
Or it could be the weekend from hell.